Illustration by Carlo Giambarresi
The calling of a new president is one of the most important responsibilities of a governing board. From the search process to the transition and throughout the presidency, the board plays a critical role in the president’s success – and the success of the institution.
One of the many ways that the board demonstrates its care of the president is to tend to important conversations before the president’s service begins. Good governance suggests a board devote time and careful attention to clarifying priorities and roles, sustaining institutional culture, developing transition plans, and establishing key relationships that will aid in creating the healthiest environment for success. Giving attention to these five things will ensure you don’t derail your new presidents before their service begins.
Clarity of priorities
The position description articulates the responsibilities, values, and characteristics of the president. Typically, a search committee invests a great deal of time outlining and preparing the position description. While this document is important, the process and discussion about what type of leader is needed for this particular time is key. The full board should engage in dialogue about what skills and gifts are most needed and what role will be most valued. And among the laundry list of expectations on the position description, priorities and goals should be identified for the first year.
A realistic assessment of institutional culture and a clear understanding of how that culture will be supportive of the new leader is key. For example, if the board is calling a female president for the first time in the school’s history, will the culture support a woman in leadership? What has been done to ensure that it will? Consider if this is the first call for a Black president, Latinx president, or Asian president. The institution may seem well-prepared for a new leader, but do not leave it to chance. The board must tend to the institutional culture, providing support as the new leader takes up this critical work.
The transition committee creates the formal plan which can remain in place for the president’s first year in office.
Illustration by Carlo Giambarresi
The work of the search committee does not end when the new president is called. An effective search process includes the identification, organization, and execution of a transition committee. The transition committee creates the formal plan which can remain in place for the president’s first year in office. The plan includes a timeline for regular check-in conversations, priority tracking, and opportunities for discussion and support. A formalized plan also ensures that transition process is a smooth one.
President / board chair relationship
There is no more important relationship than that of the president and board chair. This is not to be confused with the transition committee, although a board chair may serve on it. For a new president, frequent conversations with the board chair are key. The board chair is the connector to the full board, the sounding board for the president, and the one who can candidly share any issues related to the president’s work. The president needs to trust and rely on this relationship for the commitment and engagement of the full board and the smooth functioning of the institution.
The former president
In some schools, the board may honor the former president with a formal title and position after his or her service. If the former president will remain on campus, either in such a formal role or as a member of the faculty, the board must consider how this impacts the new president. Considering potential challenges or areas of uncertainty in advance – alignment of loyalties, communication with staff, faculty or administration, presence in meeting space – may reduce uncomfortable spaces and conversations in the future. Are clear lines of authority established and understood? Board members should not engage the former president in matters related to the institution, policies, or leadership. Faculty or administrators should not seek input or approval from the former president. Most importantly, the board should give consideration to the many challenges – mostly unexpressed – that may arise.
Dedicating time and attention to these five areas in advance can lead to a smoother transition and supportive environment for your new president.